A high school principal stung by a critical comment in a local newspaper lost her multi-million-dollar libel suit this spring when a judge ruled the published statements were not defamatory.
The quick end to the suit was a win for both the (Pearisburg) Virginian Leader and Narrows Mayor H. Clayton Davis, who authored the accusatory letter to the editor.
The March 17 ruling by Giles County Circuit Judge Robert M.D. Turk is Hopkins v. Davis (VLW 016-8-084).
Jill Hopkins was hired in 2012 to restore sound management at the then-troubled Narrows High School in Giles County, according to her lawsuit. She served as principal for three years, and claimed measurable improvements.
Not all agreed about her success.
In October 2014, Davis – the town mayor – penned a letter to the editor as a “very concerned citizen” saying tenured teachers were leaving the high school because of Hopkins’ alleged “confrontational attitude.”
Davis said that, without change, “a single administrator will continue to uproot and injure the well-being of all Narrows children who eventually enter the doors of its long-established high school.”
The letter was published on Oct. 8, 2014, in the weekly Virginian Leader.
Hopkins’ contract was not renewed in June 2015.
Suit followed letter
Hopkins sued both Davis and the newspaper in October, saying the letter was “a false, defamatory, embarrassing and vicious smear against Dr. Hopkins.” The suit claimed the paper published the letter “in a severe departure from standards of press responsibility.”
Represented by Roanoke’s David O. Williamson, Hopkins demanded between $1 million and $5 million for each of 23 counts, including tortious interference with contractual rights, common law conspiracy and statutory conspiracy.
The Virginian Leader, represented by William R. Rakes of Roanoke, filed demurrers. Davis, represented by Aaron B. Houchens of Moneta, did the same.
The defamation claims must fail, the defendants said, because the statements in the letter “constitute unactionable opinions as a matter of law.”
After a February hearing, Turk agreed the statements in the letter were not defamatory.
In “reading it as a whole or in bits and pieces, the court finds that it does not meet the definition of defamation,” Turk said.
All tort claims dismissed
The lack of defamation was fatal to the added claims of tortious interference, business conspiracy and common law conspiracy, the judge added.
“These three additional claims are all predicated on the letter being defamatory. These claims are based on an unlawful act or an unlawful purpose, such as the defamation claim. Therefore, the court will grant the demurrers to those counts as well,” Turk wrote.
Turk said his dismissal was “with prejudice.”
The “court does not believe there is any way the plaintiff can amend in order to state a cause of action in this case,” the judge said.
A final order was entered April 29. No notice of appeal was filed, according to online court records.
Lawyer Michael J. Finney, who worked with Rakes as counsel for the newspaper, offered a statement on behalf of the paper:
“The Virginian Leader’s opinion page provides an important community forum. We were pleased that, at the outset of the case, the Court found that the letter-to-the-editor could not rise to the level of defamation.”
Williamson declined to comment.
Updated July 21 to correct Finney name.